In my last post, I made a reference to a strength-based approach to student success and the importance of having a growth mindset when approaching the design of education. In this post, I want to highlight the implications of these approaches when applied to instructors!
I already addressed this in a previous post when I focused on the concept of teaching as a team effort. I think this is such an important concept that it is worth thinking about from another perspective as well. In my last post, I highlighted the fact that understanding how the demographics of our students have changed necessitates a re-evaluation of our instructional structures that are no longer well-aligned to the student input. When translated to the teaching space, this can become “everyone needs to change” or “we need to fix the faculty.” Just as approaches based on “fixing students” are less than optimal, thinking of this as “fixing instructors” is equally inadequate. Instead, we need to approach professional development from both a strength-based perspective (understanding that all instructors possess strengths that need to be magnified and built upon) and a growth mindset (understanding that building on instructor strengths allows them to become better at serving diverse student populations).
There are a number of challenges to achieving this approach. But at the top of my list are time, the opportunity for sharing, and expectations of change. I acknowledge that there are many other factors, including funding, merit, and review, that are all good topics for discussion and certainly worthy of their own blog posts. However, I will focus on these three challenges in this post.
A key element of identifying instructor strengths and building on them is finding the time to do this. Not only does it take time to reflect and identify strengths, but once identified, it also takes time to develop these strengths. Fortunately, most instructors at UCI engage in some level of reflection on their teaching, especially with the requirement for two pieces of evidence within the merit and promotion process.
However, the question I would ask all instructors is are we reflecting on whether our teaching is good or effective considering the changing student demographic? Importantly, this is more specific than just asking “is my teaching good?” or “is my teaching working?” What adds to the challenge we all face when reflecting on this question is that, until recently, we really did not have the tools and data to understand who our students are, nevermind how they were doing in real detail. Getting this information to instructors so they can explicitly reflect on their own strengths and how to build on them is a critical next step. The creation of COMPASS tools provided a starting point, and the recent creation of CODAS, with the integration of the UCI-MUST project, will provide instructors and the campus with incredibly rich data in this area. Moving forward, we will all be better equipped to answer a host of important questions, including: Is my teaching allowing my students to leverage their strengths? And do we as a campus know what those strengths are?
Opportunity for Sharing
One thing we have learned recently is that course policies are a great place for us to start asking questions about how our approach to teaching impacts our students. This is a place where we can really focus on our goals and whether or not the same policies we may have used for years really achieve those goals when the students themselves are different.
This is where the opportunity for sharing is so important. Students will certainly do that with each other, and this can lead to the dreaded “Professor so and so does X, why can’t you?” Faced with this on the spot from students, it can be a challenge to articulate why you do not do X, or even consider whether you should do X or not. However, engaging early and often with our colleagues on important questions regarding policies and approaches allows us to not only decide which things we will do but also why we will do them. Being upfront with students at the beginning of the course as to why you have selected a particular set of course policies has proven over and over to be an important element of getting student buy-in to your approach. And, though you do not need student permission, student buy-in definitely helps them with the learning process and makes it a more enjoyable experience for all involved.
Expectations of Change
I also mentioned the importance of expectations of change—both why we are calling for change and how specific suggestions for change connect with individual instructor strengths. Just as our students respond better when they understand the reasons for our decisions, instructors will be able to reflect on proposed changes (whether they come from the Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation [DTEI], colleagues, national organizations, etc.) in a more productive way when the motivation and goals behind the change are clearly articulated. For UCI, this is essential for continuing our success in serving our diverse student population.
Once we understand the motivation, the next step is understanding and gaining confidence in implementing the recommendations on how to achieve these changes. DTEI, education researchers, and many other sources regularly offer “evidence-based practices” and “best practices” that are highly recommended changes for student success.
Too often, the focus on communicating the recommendations falls short in contextualization. When contextualized, it is easier for instructors to remember that these are general recommendations that have been shown to be broadly successful but are by no means universally successful. In other words, they are not absolute demands but rather general suggestions that can be implemented according to each instructor’s unique teaching style. By combining these recommendations with one’s own teaching approach, we can achieve our student success goals and outcomes, while leveraging the wide range of instructor strengths!
One final comment. I often hear from colleagues that part of our job is to challenge students and to ensure that they learn and master key academic skills, even if it is not “natural” to them. I completely agree with these statements as general principles, but there is a danger that they can become excuses to avoid change while simultaneously ignoring our changing student demographics. Do we really understand the challenges our students are already facing and how this impacts the “challenges” we design for them? In some cases, the ways we achieve our student success goals may have to be adjusted. And this can be difficult when these strategies and methods are so embedded into our culture that it’s hard to imagine how to adjust our teaching while still preserving our deeply held expectations surrounding student success.
As we struggle with leveraging our individual strengths as instructors so as to best serve the diverse set of students that now attend UCI, it occurred to me that reflecting on the concept of “new” might be helpful. So much of what we try to do in education is to provide students with “new experiences.” And yet, with how diverse our student body has become, what was once likely to be new for most students may no longer be novel or relevant. Therefore, even achieving the simple goal of providing students with new experiences that broaden them as people takes on a whole new dimension and challenge!
While both of these considerations speak to the difficulty of adjusting our teaching styles and practices, they also highlight just how critical it is for us to change along with our shifting student population. In a university environment where we are tasked with empowering student growth and supporting their preparation for the future, we as instructors must embrace change to offer the transformative education, experiences, and opportunities we had when we were undergraduates.